I watched a movie the other day which I won’t name. Almost everything about it was great. The actors were good, the music was awesome, the story was intriguing. The directing was okay – nothing special, but more than enough to execute what might have been a great horror film.
So what was the problem?
Well, I don’t want to make a blanket statement like: the main characters weren’t believable. Because they kinda were believable – just not in a good way. And they were also developed, in that they all had unique personalities and weren’t cardboard cut-outs or anything like that.
My gripe was more specific: the characters were a bunch of helpless victims.
The structure of the ‘scary’ scenes tended to go the same way each time: the monster did something creepy, and the main characters were creeped out. Then the monster did something scary, and the characters were scared. Then the monster jumped out and did something horrifying… and the main characters quailed in a corner, screaming in a suitably horrified manner.
This is not the kind of thing that makes me root for the protagonists. It’s more the kind of thing that makes me hope the protagonists dies horribly.
This is also a good time to point out one of the many important differences between fiction and real life. While the reactions of the characters might have been ‘realistic’ in the sense that ‘real’ people would have acted that way in response to a horrifying monster, realism does not necessarily make a good story. One of the main reasons people read fiction is in fact to get away from reality. After all, no one likes to read dialogue filled with non-sequiters, ums and uhs, and mundane complaints, even though much of real-life dialogue consists of these things. Similarly, people are not interested in reading about (or watching) victims.
The argument against giving your characters a spine in a horror novel is that if you go too far with it, you end up writing an action or a thriller instead of a horror. See, if the main character is too competent, too much of a hero, then you as the reader can’t muster up any fear for them. Imagine trying to be scared on behalf of the terminator. There’s no horror movie you could put him in, right? He’s just too good. Same for James Bond, or Jason Bourne.
Except… not really. You can put a capable protagonist in a horror story and still make it compelling, and the way you do it is simple: you make the antagonist (the monster) a thousand times more capable. If your hero is smart, the villain is a genius. Whatever power your hero has, the villain has more, plus better resources and further reach.
Take the original Alien movie. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley wasn’t any kind of victim. She was about as competent as anyone can be – it’s just that the Alien was still a bigger threat. Despite her abilities, Ripley was the underdog, and that’s what makes the battle so compelling.
Now, allow me to qualify this directive: Just because the characters in a horror story should be capable does not mean that they all need to be ass-kicking action heroes like Ripley or the terminator. There are many dimensions along which a character might be capable. Perhaps they’re incredibly smart, or brave, or driven toward their goal. Or perhaps they just have a very specific set of skills…
My favourite example of this from recent times can be found in the movie Bone Tomahawk. Every one of the main characters in that story is highly competent, each in their own unique way. But the movie maintains its ‘horror’ element because the cave-people these characters face are so terrifyingly brutal. The result is an incredibly suspenseful horror, steeped in dread, populated by characters that are genuinely sympathetic and emphatically NOT victims.
If I find myself writing weak or helpless characters, it’s often because I haven’t made my ‘monster’ formidable enough. I should also add that I’m only using the word monster as a stand in, since the horror genre can have any number of things that threaten the protagonist.
The rule still applies, however. Some examples of monster-less horror that work well are The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both of which utilise an undefined ‘evil’ rather than a flesh and blood monster. And in both cases, it is not the weakness of the protagonists that facilitate the horror, it is the terrible power of that evil.